On Writing Novels

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Thanks for grace these few months while the blog’s been on hiatus. I’ve been writing a fair amount, and learning a lot about my process. Though I’ve edited for years, I still know surprisingly little about the real writing of books. And specifically novels. Certainly it’s an occupation that takes a good while to learn and requires special mental tools to really survive it. I do know a lot of theory and general information about what makes novels work and even how authors write them. And I read a lot. But I don’t know how one makes people love their type of story and how to ensure they’ll spend time and money seeking it out.

It’d be nice to know these things going in. But then you wouldn’t need faith, right?

Aside from the need for faith, one thing I think I have a moderate amount of control over in writing this novel is the vital need to love what I’m writing. If I don’t love it, I’d better figure out why and fix it or I’ll never finish.

I know it’s a common problem, losing steam. I’ve muscled my way through articles, essays, short stories, even novellas, and there’s just no muscling through 300+ pages. My muscles, my mind, and my muse revolt. I start climbing the walls and moaning about how long it’s getting and how much extraneous blather I have to put in to keep readers up. Of course, it isn’t extraneous, but that essential fictive bubble is easily burst by the interior editor and his clawing demands.

So, I go to combat this self-sabotage by striving for a sort of verbal diarrhea and ignoring the pleas for economy and restraint. And if I get a couple good thoughts or scenes, I celebrate my victory by feeling powerful and a little larger for a few hours or so. And even once the feeling fades, some part of me recalls that my happiness does rest in this mental trickery to just get the flipping story out. And when the urge to edit becomes unbearable again, I’ll have to figure out new tricks for tripping up the sage saboteur.

Basically, the deal is, to truly love what I’m writing, I have to fight to preserve my created world from the disconnecting, fracturing one constantly sniping at me. I have to remember that I write to connect the dots and make sense of things, and that the demoniac with the red pen is not my chum. If I’m going to write, I have to enjoy living in that world where some nonlinear beauty adds an organic, natural quality, and the chaotic tumbling of words serves a greater purpose and will make some sort of larger sense.

Honestly, the writer in me doesn’t really care how good the prose is. He just wants people to read it and enjoy it. Yes, quality literature is enormously important. But it’s no good if I’m worried about how good it is. And because I know that my “good edit” is the enemy of great story, I can’t worry about quality while I’m writing. If I do, no one’s ever reading it.

Second, Kafka and Hawthorne are dead. And though one might aspire to them, living writers can’t eat ideals. The purest prose doesn’t put money in your pocket. Today, if you want another contract, you need readers. That’s difficult enough, so in the end you need to write what’s going to get you read and let someone else sort out the quality question. This is why I think there’s little else that so determines your ability to find readers than gagging that inner word Nazi, at least while you’re writing. From his perspective, the struggle I’ve met with in trying to write this book makes perfect sense—he knows how badly my sentences suck. But should I care?

Of course not. Because thirdly, the only real quality to be concerned with doesn’t have to do with big words and literary phrasing. It’s the quality of the ideas, of the content. And how those ideas illuminate depth of meaning. And form those connections that end isolation. And rip at the frozen seas inside.

So in the end it’s good to remember: only you have your particular message. And only you can protect the big reasons you write. And as you strive to preserve your love for your work in progress, you may have to keep reminding yourself like I do that you can’t ever let anyone—even yourself—throw you off.

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15 thoughts on “On Writing Novels”

  1. One of the hardest things for me is not talking through certain parts of the story with someone.
    My husband kind of knows the story, but something happened in the writing that is downright scary and I don’t want that idea in his head, so I haven’t let him read what I’ve got so far. I have maybe three friends that understand and are following me, but they’ve got their own stuff to do and a lot of the time, I feel like I’m bothering them with my excited and warped information. None of them even read in my genre.
    I turn the internal editor off, but then there’s no one on the outside to get any meaningful feedback from. I think some of the things that are happening in the story are stupid, boring, not what I thought would happen, stuff like that and what do you do at that point?
    Maybe that’s just the way its supposed to be. Me, alone with the story and with God, just writing and getting it finished.
    Anyway, since we last talked, I’m halfway to the end of the first draft. Things really picked up speed and I thought I knew what the end looked like and then a couple days ago things changed and somehow I’m lost again. LOL.
    I think we’re our own worst enemies. I have such a love/hate relationship with myself when I’m writing.

  2. I’ve read similar thoughts from lots of writers, but I honestly think each writer has to find her own pace. Dean Koontz and Anne Lamott would represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Koontz edits every page as he writes and won’t move to the next until he loves that page. Just about everyone knows Lamott’s first-draft adage.
    I fall somewhere in between, but closer to Koontz. I think it’s because the dance with words is as much a part of what I love as the story I’m writing. When a beautiful sentence sings back to me from the page–the lyrics, tempo, melody line and voice all blending to perfection, I’m energized to keep going.
    I realize something else about myself, too, though. Numbers don’t drive me. I don’t really care if I’m ever a best-selling author. I love my life and the multiple ways art intersects it. The idea of sitting in front of a computer day after day pounding out Corelle dinnerware on deadline for mass production holds no appeal for me. I thrive on getting my hands wet and messy at the potter’s wheel, gently shaping, applying pressure here, cutting away little bits there, letting the piece air dry for days before firing it for the next creative phase when I mix colors for glazing–adding and tweaking dyes until the blue echoes the color of the Pacific Ocean the day of my daughter’s wedding, and the brown matches the dry oak leaves swirling their way along the curb.
    Mick, to me your post almost sounds like you’re trying to talk yourself into this diarrhea-type writing–like you’re not sure you believe it, but think you should. I say find your own rhythm. If it’s word dumping, then go ahead and banish the inner editor. But, on the other hand, if your muse loves art as much as story, you may need to let her pause and play with some passages along the way.
    Eh, but what do I know? You should probably listen to the people who’ve put lots of books out there. If you need me, I’ll be in my studio mixing colors.
    In other news, Merry Christmas to you and the adorable Silvas.
    Jeanne

  3. Here’s my problem: I love my character, so I want to keep writing, but then I start hating the story. How bad is it when I sometimes bore myself? Is my boredom an internal editor? A latent form of ADD? From spending too much time with the manuscript–like spending too much time with friends, and they begin to get on your nerves?
    Right now, I’m in a loving it! stage, which I’m thankful for.

  4. These are great thoughts, everyone. Great advice, Jeanne. I am trying to convince myself to write crap, though I don’t know if I can really go so far. I suspect many times it’s just crap to me and it’s actually essential, practical information for readers.
    Heather, I think we understand each other. Maybe the trick is allowing the characters to drive the plot so it doesn’t get boring. I’ve suffered boredom from over-outlining.
    L.L., I like your suggestion so much, I’m going to give it a shot tomorrow and see what happens. Much of the fun of writing for me is getting to be someone else, so I doubt this will be much effort. And if it actually solves something…bonus!

  5. Milk, I feel you. I am a Koontz writer and it is torturing me. I need to be done. The story has been written so many times I can’t stand myself for hacking it up like I do. But I know what it supposed to feel and move like. Now I know why Marilynne Robinson took so long to write Gilead after Homecoming. I’ll add you to my prayer list. I write as someone else for a mag column, so I can’t try that with the novel.

  6. If you’re bored writing it, your reader will bored reading it.
    And, LL, writing can be a lot like method acting, can’t it? Or schizophrenia …

  7. I’ve struggled with writing perfect myself and rarely finished a novel. Then Randy Ingermanson wrote a post which basically gave me permission to write badly. It was freeing for me, and I actually finished my WIP and it wasn’t awful. I’m in the middle of edits which really is an amazing thing for this perfectionist!
    I’d love for you to join us at the new Writer Interrupted community and open up this discussion there. I’m sure there are many writers who can relate! http://writerinterrupted.ning.com/?xgi=56yanm0

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